Mass Tort Defense

Summary Judgment for Drug Company in Pain Pump Case

A federal court has granted defendant summary judgment in a case which alleged that cartilage damage sustained by the plaintiff, a former high school athlete, was caused by the post-surgery use of the drug company’s pain medication in an automated pump device. Jensen Meharg, et al. v. I-Flow Corp., et al., No. 1:08-cv-00184 (S.D. Ind. 3/1/10).

The former high school athlete underwent shoulder surgery, after which a pain pump was utilized. The pain pump in question was manufactured and sold by I-Flow Corporation; the local anesthetic–bupivacaine Hcl – was manufactured and sold by defendant AstraZeneca.  AstraZeneca did not in any way promote the use of bupivacaine with pain pumps, and that use was not mentioned in the instructions and warnings provided with the drug -- an off-label use. Several months later, plaintiff began to experience shoulder pain again. An MRI allegedly revealed that plaintiff had developed chondrolysis in her shoulder, which she alleged was caused by the post-surgery administration of the bupivacaine with the pain pump.

The strict liability claim was for alleged failure to warn; a warning defect claim requires that defendant had a duty to warn.  Duty is generally a legal issue.  In the context of a prescription drug manufacturer, the duty to warn does not arise until the manufacturer knows or should know of the risk.  In cases that involve an off-label use of a prescription drug that is not promoted by the manufacturer, the requisite knowledge of the risk, at a minimum, includes that the manufacturer must know (or be charged with knowledge of) both that the off-label use is occurring and that the off-label use carries with it the risk of the harm at issue – in this case, damage to cartilage.

The court found as a matter of law that the information allegedly possessed by defendant was insufficient to trigger AstraZeneca’s duty to warn of the risk of cartilage damage from continuous infusion of bupivacaine into a patient’s joint. Simply put, the plaintiff failed to point to sufficient evidence that demonstrated that at the time of plaintiff’s surgery AstraZeneca knew of that risk or that it should have known of the risk because experts in the relevant field had such knowledge.

More interesting was plaintiff's other theory. Plaintiff's expert also opined that prior to plaintiff’s surgery the defendant supposedly knew that bupivacaine was being used in pain pumps, and that this knowledge triggered an alleged duty to “investigate the nature of that use, determine whether the drug was being promoted in accordance with approved indications, conduct or sponsor those studies necessary to ensure that the promoted use was safe, and to warn physicians that long-term risks to the joint had not been scientifically established but that the risks should be weighed seriously, given that the anticipated use was for elective post-operative pain therapy for which multiple alternatives existed.”  The court noted that such a  “duty” does not exist under relevant (Indiana) law.  The duty to warn does not arise until the manufacturer knows or should know of the risk.  The alleged far broader duty  – a  duty, in essence, to warn physicians that there might be a risk, although we don’t know yet because neither we or the scientific community at large has studied it yet -- doesn't exist.

Such a duty would cause physicians to be inundated with such pseudo-warnings and quasi-risk information distracting them from heeding real warnings of actual risk; and it would add very little to the fact that physicians already know, i.e., that if a use is omitted from a prescription drug’s label, that use has not been tested sufficiently to demonstrate to the FDA that it is safe and effective.

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Sean P. Wajert of Shook, Hardy & Bacon LLP